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Thu 28 Jan 2010 04:00 AM

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The chill factor

Chefs are required to keep food budgets in line and meet shifting demands from customers — as a result frozen food products have helped kitchens save time, while offering a cheap, quick source of ingredients. Ben Watts speaks to chefs and ingredient suppliers to find out why demand for frozen food is heating up.

The chill factor
Park Inn Muscat executive chef Sandeep Kamal.
The chill factor
Aloft Abu Dhabi’s Todd Hunter.
The chill factor
Sheraton Deira executive chef Susy Massetti.

Chefs are required to keep food budgets in line and meet shifting demands from customers — as a result frozen food products have helped kitchens save time, while offering a cheap, quick source of ingredients. Ben Watts speaks to chefs and ingredient suppliers to find out why demand for frozen food is heating up.

Despite the assumption that ‘fresh is best’, chefs across the region have been turning to frozen food more often in recent months, according to suppliers.

Freshly Frozen Foods general manager Densil Quadros reports that demand for frozen products is on the up across the region.

“It has increased due to a rise in the price for fresh products,” explains Quadros. “Frozen food products can be kept safely for long periods of time without deterioration in taste and quality, and we are able to make our foods available to customers regardless of the season or geographical location.

“People call frozen foods ‘the recession food’ because it’s economical,” he adds.

“As consumers tighten their belts during this tough time, people are tending to stock up on cheaper and longer-lasting frozen foods rather than buying fresh foods, which could end up being wasted.”

And Quadros says the findings of economists suggest the frozen food market will continue to stay afloat, even when the fragile global economy begins to recover.

Despite Quadros’s positive assessment, Federal Foods marketing support manager Jiji Mathews says that frozen food market has recently suffered from instability.

Mathews explains: “This is due to a natural decline in crop and yield in various parts of the world, as well as production cuts due to a decline in price, which led to a very unstable trend in food imports.

“Price fluctuations on frozen products, however, are much lower compared to fresh ones,” he notes. “The technology used these days also ensures better control of hygiene in frozen food.

“Price is a major factor in a chef’s decision to choose frozen food, as is convenience. It is available 12 months of the year and seasonality does not affect the availability,” he adds.

Mathews points out that frozen food items can offer an advantage to busy chefs, as products are often better calibrated in terms of their size, with natural yield or catch not affecting the size, weight or count.

Chefs in the Middle East are also embracing the modern technology and logistics used to store and transport a wide range of frozen food items to the region.

Aloft Abu Dhabi executive chef Todd Hunter notes: “With ‘Individually Quick Frozen’ technology available, turning something fresh into something frozen has come a long way since my mother was putting products in the freezer.“With the challenge of transporting some fresh produce still yielding frustrating results, it is usually safer and less expensive to find good, well-maintained frozen products that are readily available on the market.

“We are witnessing a trend of diners moving away from eating very expensive fine-dining meals to more reasonable options. No one is forced to exclusively purchase products frozen and you can still produce a memorable dish by keeping this in mind,” he says. Fresh or frozen?

As Sheraton Deira executive chef Susy Massetti points out, “most of the fresh products present on the Middle East market are sourced from abroad and are often harvested before they are ready”.

“In many instances fruits and vegetables are tasteless,” claims Massetti. “They look good, but that’s where it ends. Depending on the type of preparation used, frozen items can be a better choice as the flavour is more intact and the nutritional value is higher.”

Aloft’s Hunter adds: “Sometimes frozen products can be better in the Middle East region. For instance, you can buy live Alaskan king crab, but by the time it gets to your kitchen it has been out of its normal surroundings for quite some time and this affects everything about the product.”

Often economic factors come into the equation when chefs are faced with purchasing dilemmas.

Sheraton’s Massetti notes: “Like everyone else we face very tough competition and budget restrictions — frozen items are definitely a convenient and less expensive solution.

“Practicality, quality and flavour all come into play as well. If there is a negative side effect it is that a lot of the frozen items have a very recognisable shape — although on many occasions guests do not realise that we have been using frozen items.” Selection and variety

Sheraton’s Massetti says that the selection of frozen products available to Middle East chefs is still not sufficiently extensive.

“It’s too limited to be a viable solution for a higher level of usage,” she observes. “For example there are artichokes available, but only the bottom line; not the smaller, tastier varieties with a more usable bud.

“The variety of green leafy vegetable is practically limited to spinach,” she adds.

Freshly Frozen Foods’ Quadros disagrees, stating that frozen foods are easily available, even products that are out of season.“With the variety of products coming into the market and its functional benefits, by perfecting the process that guarantees the food customers eat we can assure that a wide-range frozen foods provide healthy and hygienic ingredients,” he comments.

Thomas Gerasch, executive chef at Cove Rotana Resort, Ras Al Khaimah, believes the range of frozen products available to chefs in the region is “very comprehensive”.

“It covers all lines — seafood, meat products, snack foods, fruits and vegetables, even traditional Arabic food,” he notes.

However Gerasch declares that quality should always come first. “We will never use frozen products if we can not guarantee the quality,” he affirms. “The use of good quality frozen products is internationally accepted, but the decision to purchase frozen foods needs to be made through the judgment of a professional chef — for example I would never use frozen mashed potatoes.”

While buying frozen products and ingredients is accepted as ‘the norm’ by most chefs, purchasing them can present ethical issues regarding the environment and supporting local producers, points out Park Inn Muscat executive chef Sandeep Kamal.

“Generally speaking, the fresher the food, the healthier and tastier it is,” says Kamal. “I wouldn’t recommend using frozen foods when it comes to meat, fish or poultry and for that reason we don’t use them at Park Inn Muscat. Instead, we prefer to use local products as much as possible.

“We support Origin Oman, which is a local organisation that promotes the use of Omani products in the Sultanate,” he adds.

Kamal understands that taking such a stand can often leave chefs short of common ingredients demanded by customers.

“Fortunately we have not been forced to use additional frozen ingredients or products,” he states.

“But when it comes to things like French fries and similar items, you have to buy them frozen as it is not practical to make them in your hotel or restaurant kitchens.”

Despite chef concerns regarding frozen produce, suppliers remain bullish about the benefits of frozen produce and ingredients.

Freshly Frozen Foods’ Quadros suggests that busy lifestyles have helped boost the concept of frozen food.

“It can be the easiest way without comprising on taste, nutrition and convenience,” he suggests. “Also it is economical and has the same nutritional value as fresh products.”

As Federal Foods’ Mathews concludes: “There was a large demand for frozen food in the region even before the present economic situation — chefs today have learnt the advantages of using frozen food products.”

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